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Inspired by NASA: A 3-Phase Plan to Transform Education

NASA published a three-phase plan to get humans to Mars. To live on Mars. For indefinite periods of time in sustainable habitats. It will take decades. They don’t have an exact timeline. They don’t have all of their funding in place. Much of the technology they need hasn’t been invented yet. But they have a plan. And they are moving forward with it. (You can read NASA’s plan here.)

I think that’s incredible. And it got me wondering. Could we develop a three-phase plan to make our educational system brilliant in several decades? Most people I know believe that our educational system needs to change. Most people I know understand that our educational system does not meet the needs of all learners nor the needs of all teachers. So why not change it?

The first step is to agree on the goal, like NASA did with their Mars plan. The school system I envision for this country has not yet been invented. But our country created a new educational system before. Remember, we were the first country in history to have a free system of public education for all citizens. We can be the first to create an educational system that recognizes and fosters the curiosity, creativity, and genius in all citizens. So, what would Education’s Goal look like?

An Educational System where ALL schools meet the needs of the students they serve in order to foster the powerful and informed citizenry we need. We can accomplish this goal in phases, leveraging our current experiences in educational innovation to create a heterogeneous system that nurtures all of our country’s potential geniuses.

Let’s look at NASA’s plan and then examine what an Educational Plan might look like.

NASA’s plan includes the following three phases (p. 7):

  • Earth Reliant

The Earth Reliant phase is focused on what is already happening on the International Space Station (ISS). On ISS, NASA is “testing technologies and advancing human health and performance research that will enable deep-space, long-duration missions.”

  • Proving Ground

In the Proving Ground, NASA will learn what they need to know to work in a deep space environment, but allow crews to return to Earth in days rather than months or years. They plan to conduct operations in “cislunar space” which is the volume of space around the moon.

  • Earth Independent

The Earth Independent phase is exactly what it sounds like. NASA plans to “build on what we learn on ISS and in cislunar space to enable human missions to the Mars vicinity, including the Martian moons, and eventually the Martian surface.”

Impressive. Ambitious. Well thought-out. Can we do the same for Education?

Below is a three-phase plan to create an exceptional Educational System in the coming decades.

  • History Dependent

The History Dependent phase is focused on what has already happened in Education and what is currently happening to address problems in our educational system. We need to keep testing educational innovations such as project-based learning and student-centered learning that will enable an educational system that works in the Information Age. I mention a few here, but there are many, many more out there.

  • Buck Institute for Education (BIE) is a leader promoting Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a “transformative teaching method for engaging ALL students in meaningful learning…” http://bie.org/about/our_values
  • Coalition of Essential Schools envisions “an educational system that equips all students with the intellectual, emotional, and social habits and skills to become powerful and informed citizens…” http://essentialschools.org/vision/
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation (Edutopia.org) has a vision of “a new world of learning based on the compelling truth that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race.” http://www.edutopia.org/mission-vision
  • Big Picture Learning is a non-profit organization “dedicated to a fundamental redesign of education in the United States.” http://www.bigpicture.org/about-us/

Like space exploration, “educational exploration” is necessarily driven by technology as technological advances continually change our society. Educational technology may well be the driving force behind the implementation of our plan. Many of the decisions and steps on our technological journey can’t be made yet, but here are some encouraging efforts.


  • Proving Ground

In the Proving Ground we will learn what we need to know to develop strategies that can effect change in all states and school districts in the next ten to fifty years.

First, we need to adopt NASA’s “resilient pioneering approach,” which it needs since “achieving Earth Independence will take decades and can be impacted by multiple uncertain events.” Among those uncertain events are “changes in priorities of future administrations, the emergence of breakthrough technologies, discovery of new scientific knowledge, fluctuations in funding, and new partnership opportunities.” (p. 12) If you are an educator, these events probably sound familiar.

Since we face many of the same uncertainties as NASA, their pioneering approach is desperately needed for our educational system. Education constantly deals with changes in politics, information updates on the Internet, daily breakthroughs in technology, ongoing funding issues, and the need to foster potential partnerships.

Our new educational plan should use the technology that connects us and the teaching models that will help create the innovative, well-adjusted thinkers we need in our society. Then we need to develop strategies for funding that equalize opportunities for students in all schools and districts.

There are already many thoughtful educators working toward these ends. We should continue to form broad coalitions of forward-thinking organizations and individuals whose mission is to improve education.

  • History Independent

In the History Independent phase we build on what we learn in Phase 1 and Phase 2. The way to make good education happen for all students is still elusive, but we CAN get there. We can enable an educational system where:

  • Teachers have the training and planning time they need to facilitate student learning.
  • Students (along with teachers, parents, and mentors) map their own educational plans.
  • Every school has the infrastructure it needs for its population and its educational focus.
  • Schools are driven by student demonstrations of their learning in real-world arenas.

I might be overly optimistic, but I believe this IS an achievable goal.Mars